Review: Us/Them

by Lynn on March 4, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the CAA Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written and directed by Carly Wijs

Created with Thomas Vantuycom

Designed by Stef Stessel

Lighting by Thomas Clause

Sound by Peter Brughmans

Cast: Gytha Permentier

Roman Van Houtven

A horrific incident seen through the clear eyes of two children. Brilliant.

Background Note: From the programme: “ In September 2004 a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan, Russia taking 1,200 people hostage, mainly children and their parents or grandparents. The ensuing siege lasted three days, ending in a chaotic rescue attempt by Russian security forces which left 330 hostages dead.” The terrorists were protesting the influence of Russia in Chechnya.

Story and Production. Us/Them reviews that three day hostage taking from the point of view of the children, in this case two unnamed children, a girl (Gytha Permentier) and a boy (Roman Van Houtven). The children are in fact played by two young adult actors: Gytha Permentier and Roman Van Houtven. She wears a skirt and top. He wears a turtleneck sweater and shorts.

They don’t talk in a fake young voice. They talk in the matter-of-fact voice of kids who I figure are about 10-years-old or so. They are serious, sometimes goofy, free, uninhibited and eager to show off their learning.

There is a blue board up at the back and a ‘bouquet’ of black balloons secured together stage left. The children run on eagerly and begin to describe their school. They each have a piece of chalk and draw the outlines of the buildings of the ‘campus’. They indicate other aspects of the layout so we get a sense of the size and the placement. We also get a sense that these two are friends and gently tease each other.

When I first saw this stunning show with the same cast in 2016 in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the theatre where the production took place was deeply raked with no raised stage, so the audience could easily see the chalk outlines of where the buildings etc. were. The CAA Theatre in Toronto is slightly raked and the stage is raised so the audience does not get a good look at the layout in chalk, unless of course a person is watching from the balcony. I thought that the outlining done (at the CAA Theatre) by the children might have been videoed and projected on the board at the back as they were chalking in the spaces, but nope.

When the terrorists invaded the school they rounded up the students, their parents and/or grandparents and staff and crowded them all in the gymnasium. The two kids then made a kind of game as they pulled long swaths of string from loops in the walls and strung then across the stage in an elaborate criss-crossed pattern. They described how parents outside the school heard about the attack and how many rushed to the school. It was done as a breathless, dispassionate telling.

The two kids described what happens when a person gets severally dehydrated—it was very hot in the gym and the hostages didn’t have food or water for three days. They did a running description of the goings on, referencing how many hostages there were at the time. The number diminished without commentary or reason. We knew what was happening.

At one point the boy began exploding the balloons, a metaphor for when gunfire broke out between the terrorists and the Russians storming the building.

Carly Wijs has written as well as directed this show with tremendous imagination and insight into how children think. Everything is a game. They are matter of fact in their telling of a story or incident. They are not dispassionate. It’s just that they face such emotional situations in a way that is different than adults. And certainly looking at a horrific event with the innocent, knowing eyes of a child gives the audience a different perspective. Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven are charming, impish, beguiling, clear and believable as children. The audience can’t help being drawn into the story because we have such a stake in it thanks to these two ‘children.’

The games playing is particularly inventive and energetic  especially when string is pulled from every where to form an intricate cat’s cradle across the stage. Carly Wijs tells a very difficult story but chooses two charmers to do it and we are held, mesmerized.

Mirvish Productions, BONKS and Richard Jordan Productions with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium in association with Summerhall present:

Began: Feb. 27, 2020.

Closes: March 15, 2020.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

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